A Democratic group is hoping to shine a light into an opaque corner of the conservative money machine, with a new searchable database of hundreds of right-leaning nonprofit groups, foundations, business leagues, wealthy individuals, and other political players whose actions are difficult to scrutinize.
While super PACs have gotten the most attention in the post-Citizens United world, the area that troubles many campaign finance watchdogs the most are "dark money" groups, which are not required to disclose their donors or much else to the public.
Unlike political outfits that must make regular reports on their activities to the Federal Election Commission, these nonprofit groups are regulated by the Internal Revenue Service. And even though they are technically required to make their annual IRS reports — known as 990s — available to the public, the forms are usually not available online and can be difficult or impossible to obtain.
The new website, ConservativeTransparency.org, which officially launches Thursday, puts all those forms in one user-friendly place, and uses the data from them and other sources to track the flow of money among the various donors, advocacy groups, political committees, and candidates.
"We wanted to put together the most comprehensive database around of the conservative money that's out there, but also make it very accessible," said Eddie Vale, the vice president of Bridge Project, which created the website. "It's one comprehensive place where you can look at all of these groups."
Users can browse by donors, recipient, or candidate, or they can search for more-detailed information to see how money moves between the groups. Users can also search an individual donor's name to see which groups he or she is affiliated with.
Bridge Project, a nonprofit affiliated with the Democratic super PAC American Bridge, has been compiling the database of conservative groups for several years, but is now rolling out the website to make its information more easily accessible for the public.
On Thursday, it is also releasing two reports based on the information in its database. One is basically a cheat sheet of the top 33 conservative players in the country, with a bit of background information on each. That includes how much money they've been spent in the past few election cycles, what they do, who they have supported, and other relevant facts.
The entry on the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity, for example, states that the group spent $122 million in the 2012 election, only $36.4 million of which was reported to the Federal Election Commission as "political" spending.
The second report is the first in a coming series of state-based reports, which Bridge Project hopes will help drive its message home. Because campaign finance issues are abstract and difficult to understand, the group is aiming to, as Vale says, "take it out of the kind of 10,000-foot campaign finance world and put [it] in people's daily lives."
The report focuses on North Carolina, which Vale calls "ground zero" for outside right-wing money. Republicans took control of both chambers of the swing state's Legislature and governorship in 2010, ending a century-plus reign of the state's Democratic Party, and have since been busy enacting a veritable wish list of conservative policy items. Don't like that the state reduced long-term-unemployment benefits? Blame the infrastructure outlined in this report, Vale says.
As Bridge Project sees it, the state is a "case study" for how deep-pocketed players can wield outsize influence. "The GOP's success in North Carolina wasn't merely a mirror of the tea-party wave that benefited Republicans across the nation in 2010; it was part of a strategy crafted on the national level and carried out with the cooperation of prominent conservative interest groups and donors, including the Koch brothers," the report states.
One big caveat to all this data, Bridge Project acknowledges, is that existing laws make it impossible to track all the money out there. Money raised by recipients from unknown donors who are not in the database is not included, the website notes.
The other big caveat is that Democrats, of course, have their own political nonprofit groups — including Bridge Project. To be sure, conservatives have generally had more resources in this area and have fought disclosure requirements, while simultaneously pushing to loosen laws even further.
It's an admittedly incomplete picture from a partisan source, but in a notoriously opaque world, this is at least one good flashlight.